The Fall of the Iron Curtain

A discussion report
London, November 2,  2009
location: The London School of Economics.

20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain – have our dreams come true?

speakers: Jan Krzysztof Bielecki (Poland), Jan Carnogursky (Slovakia), Vaclav Havel (Czech Republic), Geza Jeszenszky (Hungary), Markus Meckel (Germany),

chairman: Edward Lucas (UK)

presenter: David Chalmers (LSE)

author and photos DKav @zebras54.

In November 2009, there was a discussion at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The delegates discussed the legacy of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. What has changed and have their dreams come true? You can find the audio on the LSE's website.

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According to the brochure the venue I was going to has quite a pedigree, and the subject matter relates to one of the most important event of the 20th Century. There was only one place to be in London on the 2nd of November 2009: The London School of Economics.

2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain. Such a programme was to me an appropriate way of commemorating this historical change and gain information on dreams from people beyond the old curtain. I was fortunate enough to have witnessed History via the news in my first year at University, back in France in 1989. Having read pieces by Vaclav Havel or about him and Charta 77, in the previous years, I was glad to see his wishes for an end of real-socialism being fulfilled. Twenty years later, what conclusions can be drawn on the years that followed?

Embassies of the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia in partnership with LSE present

20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain – have our dreams come true?

speakers: Jan Krzysztof Bielecki (Poland), Jan Carnogursky (Slovakia), Vaclav Havel (Czech Republic), Geza Jeszenszky (Hungary), Markus Meckel (Germany),

chairman: Edward Lucas (UK)

presenter: David Chalmers (LSE)

short biographies:

Jan Krzysztof Bielecki

Jan Krzysztof Bielecki (born May 3, 1951) is a Polish center-right politician. He served as Prime Minister of Poland for most of 1991. He is a member of Civic Platform.

Since 1980 Bielecki was an advisor to Solidarność on economic policy. In 1990 he joined the Liberal-Democratic Congress (Kongres Liberalno-Demokratyczny, KLD) which became part of the Freedom Union (Unia Wolności, UW) in 1994. In 2001 Bielecki joined the newly founded Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO).
After being Prime Minister in 1991 he served as Minister for European Intergation in the cabinet of Hanna Suchocka from 1992 to 1993. From 1993 to 2003 Bielecki represented Poland at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Afterward he joined Bank Pekao S.A. (Bank Polska Kasa Opieki Spółka Akcyjna, Pekao).
(archive photo)

Jan Carnogursky
Born on January 01 1944 in Bratislava, Slovakia Graduted at Law School, Charles University, Prague Defending political opponents during communist regime 1989 emprisoned for political reasons 1991-1992 Slovak Prime Minister 1998 Minister of Justice (Attorney General) Founding member of KDH (Christian-Democratic Movement) Now part of SDK (Slovak Democratic Coalition) Married, four children

Vaclav Havel
Vaclav Havel website
(born in Prague 1936) Václav Havel
(born 5 October 1936 in Czechoslovakia) is a Czech playwright, essayist, former dissident and politician. He was the tenth and last President of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993–2003). He has written over twenty plays and numerous non-fiction works, translated internationally. He has received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, the Order of Canada, and the Ambassador of Conscience Award. He was also voted 4th in Prospect Magazine's 2005 global poll of the world's top 100 intellectuals.

Geza Jeszenszky
Born in Budapest in 1941. Due to his commitment to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was banned from higher education for two years. From 1961 read history, English and library science at Eötvös University, Budapest, receiving an M.A. in 1966 and a Ph.D. in 1970.Jeszenszky was a founding member of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (1988), which won the free elections in April 1990, nominating him Minister for Foreign Affairs in the government of J. Antall (1990-94). As Minister Jeszenszky made a personal contribution to the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact and to the reorientation of Hungary's foreign policy. Dedicated to the idea of regional cooperation he helped establishing and maintaining the „Visegrád” cooperation of the restored Central European democracies. He negotiated bilateral treaties with Hungary's three neighbors, Ukraine, Slovenia and Croatia, countries who were ready to provide guarantees for the rights of their sizeable Hungarian population.

more info

Markus Meckel

Markus Meckel was co-founder of the Social Democratic Party in East Germany and foreign minister of the German Democratic Republic.

Edward Lucas

"The New Cold War", first published in February 2008, is now available in a revised and updated edition with a foreword by Norman Davies. It has been translated into more than 15 foreign languages. I am married to Cristina Odone and have three children. Johnny (1993, Estonia) Hugo (1995, Vienna) and Isabel (2003, London)

Edward Lucas: He visited the former CSSR in 1988 to cover the trial of political dissident Vaclav Havel. He noticed “Freedom for Vaclav Havel” written in the dust of the car. (gives the microphone to Havel). Which dreams have come true?

Vaclav Havel: This is his second visit to the LSE, the last one was in 1969 when he was last allowed to have a passport in the former CSSR. His English was better then. So what he hoped in 1989 was democracy, free elections and that happened relatively soon after. The political culture, however, is taking more time to change, perhaps it needs a few generations.

Jan Carnogursky: His first dream came true because because he came out of jail. He has always been a Social-Democrat, so life before 1989 was difficult for him. Most of his dreams have come true – his country is now part of the European integration, there is the market economy and one only needs an ID card to travel.

Markus Meckel: Freedom and democracy came fast and this was the main goal. He didn't think at the time that the reunification of Germany was clear because there was a question of acceptance, and not destabilising Europe. This came earlier than he thought. What didn't come true was nuclear disarmament. In his youth, he had been quite militant about this so the non-proliferation of nuclear arms is important to him. The E.U. enlargement is a big success.

Geza Jeszenszky: He recently edited a book. He shared the dreams of the others too. He didn't believe that he would ever see the end of Soviet Repression and now so many people no longer ruled by dictatorship. His father and him used to listen to the BBC world service so when his old government used to say that NATO was aggressive, they did not believe a word. After 1989, he worked as an ambassador to the US. Not all dreams have come true, though, he attended the 1990 CSE conference in Copenhagen and it was clear that the rights of minorities were important, in that respect progress was made but not as much as he wanted.

Jan Krzysztof Bielecki: The more he thinks about that, the more he wants to emphasize what he is going to say. he is a former sportsman. In Poland, when they abolished  martial law, about 70% of people who were in prison as dissidents moved abroad to start a new life. He stayed behind because he wanted to fight for the pride of his country. Now, people are satisfied with the situation they are in, despite the recession because they are confident in being Polish. One can build on that pride. As a sportsman, he trusts in achieving things for his country. Poland was the first country in the world to officially recognise the independence of the Ukraine.

Edward Lucas : Let's move further east. I was enthusiastic about the Velvet Revolution but also disappointed that in the then USSR Andrei Sakharov was not released and I am not enthusiastic about Vladimir Putin's regime.

Vaclav Havel : The collapse of communism happened when our countries worked together – in isolation it didn't work. In 1989, there were good conditions for change: Gorbatchev's Perestroika was important, and what had happened in Poland with Solidarnosc. We are one Europe with different nation, this is important. Europe was united many times in History, through integration, conferences, (continues in Czech). so it is important to have understanding for those countries further east, so that they can develop because there is no other alternative.

Jan Carnogursky: Slovakia is an exception. There is no historical burden because this is a new country created in 1990. In some way it has taken the role that Austria played during the Cold War – being neutral and maintain good relations with Russia, the US, the UK. This policy is also inspired by Benes. It is important that Europe is not divided between the East and the West. Russia, The US and Europe should be united for the challenge of today.

Markus Meckel: The process of democratisation happened in Russia too. It was important that Russia accepted the sovereignty of the people, including those in the re-unified Germany. The Soviet Union started those reforms but Russia failed. How to deal with Russia? Global security is needed in cooperation with Russia but we need its neighbours to be secure, and that includes Georgia and the Ukraine. This has to be clear, that's the challenge.

Geza Jeszenszky: In the early 1990s, I was pleased to see great possibilities, a new world order. Russia cooperated. I am worried about the oligarch and the whitewashing of History, for example regarding Stalin. If we want the future in Europe, we should not close our eyes.

Jan Krzysztof Bielecki: I think that we are currently going back to the old days where schizophrenic behaviour was done. (= double speak) so when we talk to Russia, I can talk about trade, business but leave aside human rights and military invasions. If this is the way Russia wants to go, it's their policy but we should not accept double-standards. I once met Gorbatchev who said that he wanted to be friends with my country, and I said “why do you keep 60.000 soldiers at my border?”, Gorbatchev said that we should discuss this.

Vaclav Havel: I agree with Mr Bielecki. It is important to have a partnership with Russia but it is also important that it has to be based on fairness and equality, no special treatment. We need open discussions, not treat Russia as if they are from Mars.

Edward Lucas: If the panel members could do it again, what would they do differently?

Jan Krzystof Bielecki: I would ask people to follow my instructions (laughs). In Poland, there were policy mistakes and policies imposed by foreign banks and investors to privatise and keep the currency stable. Some people got rich by speculating. I wanted the transition from collective economy to privatization to go slower.

Geza Jeszenszky : I am glad that I was involved in foreign affairs. In my country, Hungary, there was disappointment in the nineties because unemployment was rising and the communist welfare state dismantled. An economic historian could tell what went wrong – but then communism was responsible for that state of affairs. The worst thing about communism is what comes after it. People need to be more educated about communism.

Markus Meckel: I wasn't in the German government because I'm a social-democrat. I lost my seat to post-communist party and that makes me think. My constituency has 20% unemployment rate and the federal government needed to address that. Also the linkage between the E.U. and NATO. The promotion of democracy is important but the E.U. has not been very good at that – there is a need for an open dialogue (nods to Havel) . Democracy can only evolve from domestic powers and people need to be educated.

Jan Carnogursky: We in the ex-Communist countries should have been eager to control the means of social policies. I work as a lawyer and see people losing their homes because of loans they can't repay. The rise of the oligarchs is as bad as the imprisonment of dissidents.
Vaclav Havel: I made a lot of mistakes. I believed my experts on economic reforms even if I didn't agree much. More accent (= emphasis) on moral should have been put. If there is no moral in society it can't work. People write that I am a moralist, but I feel that I wasn't enough of a moralist

Jan Krzysztof Bielecki: We can morally support an opposition to a power in someone else's country, but not displace anyone who is in power. The people there have to do it.

Geza Jeszensky: Who caused the fall of the Iron Curtain? Indeed the Polish Pope John Paul II inspired people in Poland to oppose communism. The leaders in the West did not really want to change the status quo. So what brought the changes? The people.

Markus Meckel: The West claims to have won the Cold War, this is not correct. It's freedom that won. Gorbatchev didn't want the end of communism: he tried to save it by reforming it. There was a tidal wave of popular dissent which forced governments and Gorbatchev to give in. International dialogue is important, but one has to be clear on politics. Democrats and dictators can cooperate on things but democrats need to assert their position. Economic negotiations do not mean brushing off other issues.

Edward Lucas: How do you see the role of the West? What about it as a role model?

Jan Carnogursky : I considered anti-nuclear protesters in the West as traitors. I'm not far away from Austria, so via their media I got to see the Western way of life and thought it to be better.

Vaclav Havel: It is important to support human rights. Global issues are our common problem.

Jan Krzysztof Bielecki: In Poland, there are three times more graduates since 1989. The greatest obstacle in the future will be the lack of “social capital”, meaning that people are not trusting and confident. This would make development difficult.

Gesa Jeszenszky: All of us here on the panel were raised by communism and that is why we oppose it. I don't think that communism will return to Europe, although it is strong in Latin America, especially in Venezuela. In the West, fundamentalism rise, but loss of faith is also a danger in our countries. The far-right is not a danger now but could become if poverty, bribery and inequalities get worse because one may become receptive to populism. So the media has an important role to play.

Markus Meckel: Europe is important for the next decade and we need to work together. We need to find a consensus about communism and how to deal with the legacy. I would like to see a museum at Berlin Checkpoint Charlie.

Jan Carnogursky: Hungary and Slovakia tend to point the finger at each other regarding the far-right but dealing with the far-right is a local issue. I don't want the Hungarian government telling us about our own far-right , nor should we tell Hungary about their own far-right. As far as Slovakia is concerned: The far right in not represented in any institution. Central Europe is now a very peaceful region. In 1961, when US and Soviet tanks faced each other in Berlin, that was a very dangerous situation.

Edward Lucas: Vaclav Havel once said that he wanted Czechoslovakia to be the most boring country.

Vaclav Havel: There are two kind of enemies. Nightmares and butterflies. Nightmares: imagining the worst. Butterfly: not thinking about tomorrow. I am not like Marx who knew everything and could predict the future.

And so ended the panel discussion. What we had was an accessible quality discussion to make us think about some people and the countries they came from. I enjoyed my evening at the LSE and as I was making my way back from Houghton Street to Aldwych down to Temple underground station, admiring London at night, I thought it's a great thing to be a European in 2009 because only lack of money limits my flights of fancy, whereas under the Iron Curtain, your flights of fancy would have been controlled the government. Good riddance Iron Curtain, and I hope that freedom and human rights for everyone in the world is not a vain dream.

further reading:

To the Castle and Back by Václav Havel Translated by Paul Wilson Portobello, £9.99

The New Cold War by Edward Lucas Buy The New Cold War at The Guardian Bookshop

The New Cold War
by Edward Lucas
352pp, Bloomsbury, £18.99

update: September14,  2010